Cal United Strikers are NISA's West Coast Champions: Game Recap

Published Nov 11, 2019


Nov. 10, 2019

By Scott French

For California United Strikers FC

IRVINE -- Steven Barrera made a huge first impression for California United Strikers FC, punctuating a superb debut with a penalty-kick save that paved a victory seven weeks ago over the L.A. Force.

He did it again Sunday night, with far more on the line. The 26-year-old goalkeeper smothered the first shot he faced during the penalty-kick shootout to decide the National Independent Soccer Association's West Coast championship, and that was the difference as Cal United claimed the trophy at Great Park's Championship Stadium.

Cal United rallied in the closing minutes of regulation, with Michael Bryant finishing a Gonzalo Salguero through ball for a 2-2 draw with L.A. Force, fought through 30 minutes of overtime, then celebrated mightily after Salguero's blast to the lower left clinched a 5-3 win in the tiebreaker.

“What can I say? It feels amazing,” Salguero said as he fêted the triumph on the field with teammates, club staff and fans following the new third-division professional league's inaugural showcase. “It's a long time coming. We've been working really hard, and it's like a family over here.

“This has been the goal from the beginning, and we got it. Feels good.”

Gustavo Villalobos' fifth goal of the season, from a beautiful diagonal ball by Kevin Jeon, gave Cal United a 20th-minute lead, but the Force -- the top Western team during the regular season -- surged ahead on goals by Enrique Cardenas Jr. in the 61st and Marvin Merlano in the 72nd minutes. Bryant's finish in the 86th prolonged the action an extra half-hour, and then Barrera played hero.

Juan Pablo Ocegueda, who had come on with about 10 minutes to go in overtime after Bryant went down with an ankle injury, converted the first kick from the penalty spot to give Cal United the advantage. Up stepped L.A.'s Naeem Charles, whose attempt toward the right post was gobbled up by Barrera.

“I was pretty confident, I'm not going to lie,” Barrera said. “I didn't second-guess myself. If was going to go a certain way, I was going to make sure to go that way and not change it up. I wasn't going to psych myself out. ...

“I came up with the save in the PKs, and then my team didn't miss. I think that's the most important stat, that they didn't miss.”

Nobody missed after the big stop. Omar Nuño, Miguel Sanchez-Rincon, and Villalobos converted for Cal United, and the Force stayed alive as Boniface Muchiri, Ricardo Ruiz and Mark Tanko struck with high shots that found each corner and the middle ceiling of the net.

That left Salguero with a chance to win it, and he was precise.

“Can't lie, definitely nervous,” he said. “But I feel confident with my PK, rarely miss, and I wanted the last one. I wanted it.”

The championship sends Cal United -- like Miami FC, a 3-0 winner over Stumptown Athletic from Matthews, N.J., in Saturday's East Coast final -- to the playoffs that will follow next year's NISA spring season, the league's first full campaign.

The finish made for marvelous drama in front an appreciative crowd of 2,846 following a clash defined by momentum swings. Cal United had almost all of the game in the first half, L.A.'s tactical shift at the break wrested control away from the home side, and Bryant's late equalizer followed several Cal United forays that came close in the previous seven minutes.

That span aside, the second half belonged to the Force, which had the Cal United defense on its heels and might have claimed the trophy had Bryant not nodded away a Ruiz shot from the right that was headed toward the upper-left corner four minutes after Cardenas had pulled L.A. even.

“I give [the Force] a lot of credit,” Cal United head coach Don Ebert said. “They completely changed up [at halftime], went with four up top and started playing really direct, and they changed us up. They're a good, solid team. They don't make mistakes. I was pleased the way we answered when we were down, 2-1, because we were a little lost.”

Forward Christian Thierjung, who after the match was presented the Golden Ball as the West Coast MVP, an honor secured through a league-best six goals, described the second half as “a lot of grinding, a lot of defending.”

“Unfortunately, they took the lead, and we had to fight our way back,” he said. “But that's what winning teams do. That's the winning mentality. ... Great effort by both teams, but we came out and proved who is best in the West.”

Cal United was the better team at first, and it outshot L.A., 8-1, in the first half. But aside from Villalobos' goal -- he slotted toward the right post from just inside the box after Jeon's ball split Tanko and fellow defender Joshua Culwell -- chances were at a premium. The Force conceded possession but not space.

“They hunkered down and wanted to keep it tight and give us the ball,” Ebert said. “I told the guys if we get two [goals], we'll get four, but we've got to get the second one, and we didn't.”

A second goal nearly arrived 11 minutes into the second half, when Villalobos picked up a clearance, roamed to the left and into the box, then fired through the goalmouth and off the right post.

Then the Force, fresher after bringing on Cardenas and left back Gregory Salazar at the break, began surging forward. The tying goal came quickly, and it was something of a fluke.

Cardenas took a backheel from Ruiz in the Cal United box and slid a ball from a tight angle on the right that slipped past Barrera at the near post and Merlano in the middle and then caromed off the right post. The Force collected the rebound and worked the ball back to the right, where Ruiz again found Cardenas along the byline.

Cardenas again fired from an abrupt angle. Barrera tracked it and stepped toward the ball, but it ricocheted off Salguero and into the net.

“I was reading it to go to the middle,” Barrera said, “and after it deflects, I'm already going [the other way].” Salguero called it “just unfortunate ... something you've got to live with.”

The second Force goal was clinical. Goalkeeper Miguel Marin booted the ball into Cal United territory, it took a big bounce, and Cardenas won an aerial battle to nod it farther along. Merlano collected it, took it to the box, then slotted past Barrera to the right side of the goal.

That left Cal United chasing things, and they kept coming close. Sanchez-Rincon headed a Salguero free kick just past the left post in the 80th minute, Marin sprawled to gather a Bryant header toward the right post from a Salguero corner kick two minutes later, and Marin made an outstanding stop a minute after that, parrying the shot after Andy Contreras took a clearance off his chest and volleyed toward the upper-left corner from about 24 yards.

Bryant struck soon after, cutting inside a bit from the left to shoot after Salguero gathered a clearance by Giovanny Vazquez -- exceptional in the middle of the Force backline -- at midfield and sent the ball ahead through a gap.

There were two late chances to win in regulation, but Marin handled Nuño's deft redirection of a Contreras blast into the box in the 90th minute, and came off his line to grab a Contreras shot four minutes into stoppage.

Little of note occurred in overtime -- aside from Bryant's injury, after a Force player clipped him in the L.A. box -- but there were plenty of fireworks after that, with Barrera's providing the biggest boom.

“Stevie has been great all year,” Ebert said. “Ever since he got his shot in the third game, he hasn't looked back. I'm really happy for him, because he came from nowhere and just kept showing up everyday. I said, 'Steve, you're No. 3, it's a long climb,' and here he is now winning it for us.”



Cal United FC 2, L.A. Force 2, OT

(Cal United wins championship on penalties, 5-3)

CU -- Gustavo Villalobos (Kevin Jeon) 21

LA -- Enrique Cardenas Jr. (Ricardo Ruiz) 61

LA -- Marvin Merlano (Enrique Cardenas Jr.) 72

CU -- Michael Bryant (Gonzalo Salguero) 86

Cal United FC: Steven Barrera; Chris Klute, Michael Bryant (Juan Pablo Ocegueda, 111), Xavier Fuerte, Gonzalo Salguero; Abraham Villon Jr. (Andy Contreras, 76), Duncan Capriotti (Beto Navarro, 91), Evan Waldrep (Miguel Sanchez-Rincon, 73); Gustavo Villalobos, Christian Thierjung, Kevin Jeon (Omar Nuño, 66).

L.A. Force: Miguel Marin; Mark Tanko, Joshua Culwell, Giovanny Vazquez, Daniel Amo (Gregory Salazar, 46); Ever De La Torre (Enrique Cardenas Jr., 46), Leonardo Silva dos Anjos (Naeem Charles, 57), Jesus Gonzalez (Kainoa Bailey, 120); Alvaro Madrigal-Zavala (Cristhian Hernandez, 87), Marvin Merlano (Boniface Muchiri, 77), Ricardo Ruiz.

Penalties: Cal United FC -- Ocegueda goal, Nuño goal, Sanchez-Rincon goal, Villalobos goal, Salgueiro goal. L.A. Force -- Charles saved, Muchiri goal, Ruiz goal, Tanko goal.

Yellow cards: Vazquez 18, Capriotti 58, Tanko 81, L.A. head coach Thales Peterson 86, L.A. assistant coach Salvador Moran 86, Cardenas 102, Sanchez-Rincon 106.

Referee: William Randy Hoffman. Att.: 2,826.